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ELCNWF Restores Normalcy to Young Children Through Learning and Play

Panama City, FL – In 2019, the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida (ELCNWF) was awarded and used $7.4 million in disaster recovery funds to assist Hurricane Michael recovery. With this funding, Operation Kaleidoscope was launched by ELCNWF to rebuild childcare indoor and outdoor environments, provide mental health resources, and create growth and expansion opportunities for childcare providers in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington Counties.

Joyce’s Learning Center is one of many childcare facilities to benefit from Operation Kaleidoscope. The facility was brand-new in October 2018 and ready to welcome staff and children to the facility when they were dealt a crippling blow. “Hurricane Michael hit and everything was destroyed,” said owner Joyce Caldwell. “We had to rebuild everything, inside and outside. The funding we received from ELCNWF made our rebuild possible.”

Like Joyce’s Learning Center, many of the childcare providers in the region suffered damage to their outdoor playgrounds as a result of the storm. Playground equipment, shade structures, and trees were lost, resulting in a loss of outdoor play spaces for children. In December 2022, thanks to Operation Kaleidoscope, the playground at Joyce’s Learning Center reopened, better than ever.
Playgrounds are important for all children, but they’re critically important for children who need to de-stress and work through traumatic events. To meet this need, over $2.85 million has been spent to rebuild playgrounds at childcare centers. New outdoor play structures have been installed at 42 childcare centers in ELCNWF’s service area.

Of equal importance is restoring indoor classroom learning environments. Over $1.35 million was allocated to 339 classrooms that received books, furniture, and other tools to promote learning and over $524K has been disbursed to childcare centers for repair and renovation reimbursements. The funding also increased childcare availability and sustainability by creating additional spaces for children.

“The Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida is proud of Operation Kaleidoscope and the sense of normalcy it brought to the children affected by Hurricane Michael in 2018 and then by the pandemic in 2020,” said Executive Director Suzan Gage. “It is vital for children to have spaces where they can bounce back from life’s challenges through safely playing, connecting, and learning. Supporting the mental health needs of children, families, and their caregivers is also a top priority for ELCNWF.”

With this mental health priority in place, a program called Help Me Grow Florida was brought to the Northwest Florida region to offer support and resources for child developmental screenings; and mental health services were expanded to meet the needs of children, parents/caregivers, childcare teachers, and childcare directors. The free screenings benefited over 1,400 children and more than 2,600 hours of therapy was provided.

“This initiative in rebuilding childcare classrooms and playgrounds in Northwest Florida is so important to our recovery,” said Jeanne Hitchcock, ELCNWF Executive Board member and owner of Along the Way Learning Center in Jackson County. “As a parent and Hurricane Michael survivor, I have witnessed first-hand the impact restoring normalcy to classrooms and play areas has on not just children, but entire families.”

For more information on Operation Kaleidoscope or for media availability contact Communications and Development Director, Tami Valdez at (850) 625-8882.